Oh Lord! What a scoundrel

Benjamin Markovits has completed his trilogy of novels about Byron. But how much of it should we believe? Suzi Feay asks him

I meet the US novelist Benjamin Markovits in the atmospheric gloom of Blacks Club in London's Soho, an 18th-century house just around the corner from P B Shelley's old lodgings in Poland Street, and not far from Albany, Byron's rather grander gaff in Piccadilly.

It seems a suitably raffish spot to celebrate the culmination of one of the most intriguing fictional projects of recent years: Markovits's Byron trilogy.

This clever, riddling series began in 2007 with Imposture and continued with 2008's A Quiet Adjustment. The first of these dealt with Byron's early fame and his relationship with the tragic John Polidori, his doctor; the second tackled the love triangle involving Byron, his sister, and the woman he should never have married – prim, vengeful Annabella Milbanke. Now, Childish Loves looks both at Byron in youth and at Missolonghi, where he died in the cause of Greek freedom (and in pursuit of a beautiful, 15-year-old Greek boy).

The storytelling is not at all straightforward. Childish Loves has a framing device involving the papers of Peter Sullivan, supposedly a former friend of Markovits who, the reader is told, really wrote the two previous books and much of this one. The fictional "Ben Markovits" not only doesn't think much of Peter's work, he muses about the banality of readers who only want to know "how much is true". There's even a walk-on part for Markovits's real-life editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone. What's going on?

"One of my ideas was not to write the kind of historical novel in which you say: 'In 1823 something happened and London at that time was blah ....' There were certain things an average reader just needed to know and the [metafictional structure] grew out of that. But the simple answer is," Markovits goes on, "I like being able to expose the historical scaffolding. One of the tricks I play in the book is that I reveal my sources, in a pseudo, Penn-and-Teller way."

He winds up with a flourish: "These books are no more true than any average novel; it's just that the things that are true in them are totally true, literally factually true, whereas the things that aren't true, sound like they are." Satisfied?

Markovits has been fascinated with Byron since he was a teenager. Arguably the least-read today of all the major Romantics, Byron, he believes, deserves another look. "I think the late stuff is tremendous, and the early stuff, though not great, is fun. Don Juan is a beautiful poem. And I would like Beppo to be taught alongside 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Ode to a Nightingale' as one of the great romantic poems. It deserves it."

Although the books were always planned as a trilogy, Markovits says he made no effort to make the different versions of Byron that appear in each book line up. "He's horrible in A Quiet Adjustment ," he says. "The marriage was not his finest hour. He's obviously a contradictory character but there's a lot that is likeable about him. Which isn't surprising, because he was widely liked! People wanted to be around him."

But still, the arrogance, the egotism, the cruelty to wife, children and mistresses ...

"On top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that," Markovits muses, "Byron could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that's a very attractive contrast. I think he's nicest as a boy; not so nice at college, when he's just coming into his sexual power; and at the end I hope you sympathise with him again, when he has this ridiculous infatuation with a 15-year-old Greek boy who doesn't care for him at all."

Ah, yes, the boys. "Ben Markovits" in the novel remarks that: "By our own modern standards [Byron] was probably a paedophile and certainly a rapist, at least of the statutory kind," and the interpretation of different sexual acts is crucial to our reading of the trilogy.

"I'm generally interested in what's unhappy-making about sexual awakening," explains Markovits. "I think all sexual awakening involves a sort of coming out; it seems to be painful for people. I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame, in different ways, sex acts that we weren't quite comfortable with. In the end, do you want Byron to get together with the Greek boy? In a way you sort of do, right? Well, I did .... Okay, the boy's 15, he's a dependent, but he seems to hold all the power in the relationship and there's something dreadfully sad about Byron's devotion to him."

But it's the fully consummated incestuous relationship with Augusta Leigh that still has the power to shock. "It wasn't really that kinky, was it? He didn't know Augusta all that well as a kid; she was a half-sister," argues Markovits, adding unexpectedly: "Whenever I meet half-siblings, I always ask them, 'so how sexually attracted to each other are you?'"

I ask if he has siblings. "I've got three sisters. I don't feel sexually attracted to them though," he adds, deadpan.

So, how would he persuade a teenager to give Byron's poetry a try? His answer is typically thoughtful. "People have bad reactions to poetry for a reason. It's not that they don't know any better. Byron had the same antipathy to what he considered the poetical. He tried to write a more natural poetry. I guess that's what I would say." Then, after a pause: "And there's sex in it. Sex, swords, murder."

Childish Loves, By Benjamin Markovits (Faber £14.99)

'Rape scenes had featured in both of Peter's novels, scenes of sexual initiation, but this one struck me as a departure from the others: it was the only one involving a man and a boy. (Lord Grey was eight years older than Byron, which makes a difference at 23 and 15.) I don't want to say a writer can't write a scene like that without drawing on personal experience. But if there has been some personal experience, I also don't see how he can leave it out entirely.'

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...